Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:47 am
For some, Lacock Abbey will always be associated with the invention of photography; for others, it is the Tudor-Gothic-Victorian house that gets the juices flowing; for me, the real pleasure was in wandering through cloisters and gardens.
It was September and a stroll beyond the inevitable National Trust shop took us past pastel-shaded cottage-garden style borders, through a community allotment area, an orchard, rose garden (Lady Elizabeth’s, no less – whoever she was) and into a bosky wood. The allotments are bursting with produce and colour, the fruit trees heavy and pendulous. A rope-swing dangles irresistibly (yes, we did). Beyond the woods, the Wiltshire landscape beckons: a flock of sheep cotton-balls its way across lush, green, fields; we merely await the imminent arrival of Little Bo-Peep to turn the whole place into a veritable pastoral idyll. A step along tree-lined paths to what might have been an old fish-pond ends abruptly at a ha-ha, where a couple sit, deep in intimate conversation; like guilty voyeurs, we turn quickly away and are relieved to be confronted with a wonderful view of the old Abbey across a meadow.
Lacock Abbey was established between 1229 and 1232 by Lady Ela, Countess of Salisbury. Ela founded two religious houses: Lacock, for Augustinian nuns, and Hinton Charterhouse in Somerset for Carthusian monks. Both were in memory of her late husband, William Longespée, the Earl of Salisbury, who, in addition to his little problem (could he sometimes be a sleepless knight, I wondered?), was an illegitimate son of King Henry II. So William was half-brother to kings Richard I and Nasty John. He and Ela were a well-connected, powerful, couple and, rather disappointingly, Longespée seems to have meant something like ‘longsword’. Anyway, Lady Ela became Abbess of Lacock in 1240, lived to 74, a ripe old age in those days, and was buried in the abbey church. Much later, her tombstone was moved to the cloisters and reads: “Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived here as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works”.
The abbey prospered through the Middle Ages, largely due to revenue from wool – occasionally referred to as ‘white gold’. It sustained a community of between 15 and 25 nuns, mostly ladies from well-to-do families, as well as the lay sisters who did most of the menial work. When Lacock Abbey was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, it was bought by Sir William Sharington in 1540 for the sum of £783.00. Sharington was something of an ambitious rogue, a Member of Parliament, holder of several offices, member of Queen Catherine Parr’s household and an associate of Sir Thomas Seymour. Lacock was just one of the many properties he managed to acquire in Wiltshire, as well as in Dorset, Gloucestershire and Somerset, between 1540 and 1548. As under treasurer of the Bristol Mint, in 1549 Sharington was found guilty of debasing coinage and embezzlement and he narrowly escaped execution (unlike his friend, Seymour). Sharington’s legacy, though, despite demolishing Lacock’s abbey church, was his retention of the main conventual building, adapting the upper rooms into an elegant home and adding a wonderful octagonal tower; but he left the ground floor, including the cloisters, largely intact. And I’m so glad he did.
There is a story that Olive Sharington, William’s niece and heiress, was looking out of an upper window being serenaded from below by her sweetheart, John Talbot, when, for some reason (possibly to elope), she jumped. Allegedly, her billowing Tudor skirts acted as a parachute, thus preventing serious injury. But she did manage to land on her boyfriend and knock him unconscious – assuming, of course, that he hadn’t already swooned at the sight of his beloved’s descent, like a heavenly body through the sky. Fortunately the young lad recovered and went on to marry his leaping lover – and in consequence the Talbot family came to own Lacock Abbey.
Lacock Abbey was briefly occupied by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War, and later by Royalists – who sensibly surrendered to a superior Parliamentary force after an honourably short siege in 1645, thus probably saving the house from considerable damage.
The Talbots survived. In 1753, a John Ivory Talbot gave the place a make-over, creating the Gothic style (described as ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ in the Shell Book of English Villages – but what do they know?) we see today, with its decorative features like the external parapets and cupolas. It was John Ivory who converted the Great Hall into what I believe is the most wondrous room in the house, with a barrel ceiling and niches on the walls containing 27 terracotta figures by the Austrian artist Victor Alexander Sederbach – of whom, apparently, nothing is known other than this work of his in Lacock. The figures are extraordinary – images seemingly cooked up between Disney and a bunch of pre-Raphaelites. They include representations of William and Ela, various saints, Death, one immediately recognisable as Gandalf (actually a depiction of the Greek philosopher, Diogenes) and the prophet Aaron and the Scapegoat, the creature that bore the sins of the children of Israel (but don’t take my word for it – I looked it up).
So what’s all this about photography? Arguably the most famous Talbot of Lacock Abbey was William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), who was something of a polymath, but best known as the inventor of the negative/positive photographic process. He was inspired whilst visiting Lake Como in 1833, trying to sketch the scenery and thinking “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed on the paper.” After some experimentation, he took his first picture, of the oriel window at Lacock, in 1835 (today, the world’s earliest surviving photographic negative) and, over the next few years, developed the means to produce any number of prints from the same negative. There is, understandably, a museum of photography at Lacock – the curiously named Fox Talbot Museum of Photography. The museum displays some of Fox Talbot’s early photographic trials, including portraits of his family and life at Lacock, the work of other photographic pioneers (such as Daguerre and Wedgwood) and a bewildering amount of complicated-looking photographic equipment. Interesting how far, and how quickly, the medium has developed (pun intended).
Fox-Talbot’s grand-niece, Matilda Talbot, donated Lacock Abbey, and indeed most of the adjoining village, to the National Trust in 1944. Thanks to her – and the previous Talbots, Sharingtons and, of course, Lady Ela – you can wander about the house, grounds – and the particularly beautifully preserved abbey cloisters and adjoining rooms. As you visit the latter, perhaps you can picture yourself at JK Rowling’s fictitious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for Lacock Abbey’s illustrious film credits include ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince’. The sacristy, where the abbey’s valuables would have been kept, was turned into Professor Snape’s potions class; the chapter house was where Harry found the unsettling Mirror of Erised and the Warming Room (which contains a real Tudor cauldron) became Professor Quirrell’s defence against the dark arts class. You might also recognise the cloisters, where Harry, his friends and Mrs Norris the cat, wandered. Don’t forget to look up at the ceilings, though, with their wonderful bosses. Lacock Abbey has been featured in other film and TV productions too, including ‘Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald’, ‘The other Boleyn Girl’ and ‘Wolf Hall’ as well as episodes of ‘Robin of Sherwood’.
As others have noted, Lacock Abbey is really two houses, the ground floor medieval former convent and the first floor Tudor-Gothic-Victorian mansion. The latter’s chintzy bedrooms and book and picture-lined corridors did little for me, though it is packed with artwork, there are some fascinating features and I really did want to spend Christmas in the Great Hall. Keep your eyes open for a copy of the Magna Carta. It is a reproduction, but from an original (dated 1225) issued to William Longespée, once held in the abbey archives and passed down through the Talbots. The original is now in the British Library. Lacock also holds an extremely rare 14th century book, Expositiones Vocabulorum Biblie, by William Brito, which is a kind of dictionary for the bible that was once held in the abbey library. Somehow, it survived the dissolution – and it also contains some of the abbey’s medieval accounts.
Over a fireplace in the Stone Gallery, created from the old nuns’ dormitory, are what look like a couple of funerary helmets, or mort helms. These were highly decorated armoured helmets – possibly once part of a genuine suit of armour – placed near memorials to knights. They can often be seen in churches – I couldn’t find out anything about the ones in Lacock (if that’s what they are – I should have asked when I was there).
Fox Talbot’s study was interesting and I found an over-blown(!) Venetian glass chandelier in the South Gallery curiously alluring. Pride of the collection, though, has to be the ‘household wants indicator’ in the kitchen, a reminder not to forget such essentials as prunes, isinglass, turpentine and dentifrice. It’s a cross between an early 20th century spreadsheet and a shopping list – though how you’d take it round the supermarket is beyond me – but probably a ‘must have’ for any self-respecting Downton Abbey fan with enough wallspace. It seems they occasionally come up for sale on EBay.
Lacock is about 3 miles south of Chippenham and a magnet for tourists from all over the world. Lacock village, seemingly suspended in a period beyond living memory, has featured in countless period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Moll Flanders and Cranford.